Saturday, 24 May 2014

'Love God, and do what you like': a sermon on Exodus 20:1-20

Given the gospel passage, I moved away from the RCL OT suggestion,
and went for Exodus 20:1-20... and then found myself focusing upon that
and only giving a very brief nod to the set gospel text for Sunday.
I love the suggested Acts passage, but maybe next time around I can preach on that!!
This is the last in a 3-part series that has focused upon:

  • 'what is the church' - we are - called into community
  • 'what does the church do' - tell God's story - we are a community of story
  • 'how can we be church' - some handy guidelines via 10 Commandments
I had been reading around quite a lot, so there may be some accidental plagiarisation!

Sermon ‘Love God, and do what you like’
Picture the scene:
the wind is blowing mightily.
The very air is alive with crackling tension:
Thunder thunders,
lightning flashes,
there is a sound of trumpets in the air....
Swirling smoke and cloud cover the mountaintop.
Far down below, in the shadow of Mt. Sinai, 
people huddle together trembling, afraid...
trying to find a little distance
from the terror and the noise
and the all-pervading,
utterly terrifying, voice
of the all-powerful God.
Too much.
it’s all too much to bear –
and if they hear much more,
the people feel that they will surely die....

The description of the giving of the ten commandments 
is certainly not filled with fluffy bunnies, pretty butterflies,
or people skipping merrily along the way. 
Nor, for that matter, does it feature Charlton Heston 
in glorious cinemascope, with his long, grey beardy locks blowing in the wind –
as much as I, and Hollywood, certainly would like it to.
Rather, it is quite literally awe-some:
designed to make you pay attention. 
Something big is happening here,
something of tremendous importance: 
God... speaks
The people of God tremble.
They think of death...
and miss the point completely:
God speaks.
Ten words.
Words of life,
not death.
Words of liberation,
not captivity.

But surely, ‘law’ and ‘liberation’ in the same sentence 
must be a bit of an oxymoron:
are contradictory? 
Don’t quite...compute.
Or do they? 
An Orthodox Jewish reading of the ten commandments has as the first commandment:
‘I am the Lord you God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of bondage and slavery.’

Bill Wylie-Kellermann, writing for the magazine Sojourners asks:
‘This is a command?’
And he continues, by answering his own question: 
that it’s a command that focuses upon the identity of the people of Israel...
and of what God has done...
it’s a command that implies
to those who have ears to hear it:
‘Know that whose you are
precedes what you do.’ are God’s people...
this, then, is how to live as God’s people...
Which, if you like, is picked up in our gospel reading, where Jesus observes:
'if you love me, you will obey my commandments'

But are the 10 commandments merely just a bunch 
of rules and regulations designed to spoil our fun?

As someone who’s been a very keen student of church law,
of course, I’d be inclined to say ‘no!’
And I’d add that law –
rules, regulations, codes of practice,
however you might describe them –
often get a bad press, which, I think, is a little unfair. 
On the other hand, it is fair to say that the manner 
in which the ten commandments are phrased doesn’t seem to help:
thou shallt not...’ is not the most positive of starting phrases, after all. 
The phrase is a little like a verbal slapping before you’ve actually done anything.
‘Don’t do that!’
‘Stop it!’
It feels almost designed to beat us into submission...
Here, I probably should confess that, in my head 
there’s a picture of God as Clint Eastwood, 
saying to potential offenders:
‘Go ahead, make my day...’ 

The ‘thou shallt nots’ are all too easy to caricature, and in doing so,
misrepresent what I believe to be the actual intent of the commandments.
At this point, I’m really, really, really hoping you’ve all been given a copy of ‘the positive 10’ in your orders of service... and if you take them out now, we’ll be referring to them a little. 

When I stumbled across this version of the commandments, 
it really helped me see them with fresh eyes – 
and do feel free to take them home with you and pin to your fridge!

Let’s go back to that comment about knowing 
whose you are’ preceding ‘what you do’...                                                           
And while we’re at it, let’s also lose the word ‘commandment’ –
in the original context this was known as ‘decalogue’
ten words.
The ten words are almost a foundational document of liberation:
And that liberation is founded on relationship.

Let’s have a look at the first four commands, or ‘words’ –
These first four ‘words’ concern
God in relation to God’s people,
the people in relation to their God...
Just ‘whose’ are these people?
They belong – are in relationship with –
 the One who freed them from captivity,
who took them out of Egypt, 
and on a journey into the wilderness wastes,
a journey where daily, they saw God’s saving hand at work:
keeping them fed and watered on the way.
A rocky journey at times, and this is not just a comment on the terrain...
mumblings, murmurings, complaining:
even doing a little revisionist history concerning their time in Egypt –
to the point where some were inclined to believe that slavery, 
on the whole, was actually pretty darned good –

But now, at the foot of Mt Sinai,
they are no longer Pharoah’s:
they are God’s particular people,
and God begins the process of guiding them 
into a particular way of being,
Having liberated them for a particular purpose,
they are now in the process of learning what it is to live in relationship with God...
and, as we look at the other six ‘words’,
learning how to live in relationship with each other - their neighbour.

Ten words,
calling God’s people to serve God, 
and each other, in love, 
Ten words that are a radical call for commitment to God 
and to neighbour... and extending to all creation.

Ten words that continue to confirm my growing suspicion 
that God is indeed a Presbyterian: 
after all, these words enable life to be lived decently, and in good order!

God, in the giving of these words to the ones liberated from Egypt,
provides a way in which order is created out of the former chaos...
and reinforces that, even in the wilderness,
life can be meaningful, and fruitful -
importantly, that in the midst of it all, 
that there should be time to rest: 
a clear message that there is more to life than work – 
that we are defined by being in God, not by what we do.
These ten words paint an alternative picture to their previous life in Egypt:
a place where there was little interest in regeneration and rest and no freedom....

And, in contrast to the Egyptian custom,
the commandments don’t sanction a human king 
or a leader to assert power over, or demand allegiance from, the people.
The community isn’t going to be defined 
according to the whims of power-hungry human rulers.
Instead the commandments demand loyalty and obedience to God alone.

The commandments also serve to formalize the connection 
and the relationship between the realms of God and this particular people.
As Patrick Miller eloquently expresses it: 
‘...neither community, nor deity have separate existences 
once the covenant is established. Even though both 
experience real abandonment on the part of the other 
for a time, they are forever linked.’

But what about us?
God’s people, the church...
God’s living stones...
called into community...
called to tell God’s story?
We certainly haven’t been released from captivity in Egypt...
and given the dreary weather this last couple of days, 
it’s not as if we’ve been stumbling about the searingly hot wilderness of Sinai....
So, what might these ten words have to say to us in our situation,
as we sit comfortably in our seats here in parish by the sea?

I’m fairly sure that most of us here are aware of the ongoing talk of the church
being in a kind of terminal decline. 
Of talk concerning how we, in the Church of Scotland in particular, 
no longer seem to hold the privileged place in society 
that we used to when it came to having some 
kind of public influence when decisions and statements 
were made at the General Assembly.
Everything seems to be shrinking away and the glory days seem long ago.
In that sense, are we, in a different way to the Israelites, 
in a type of wilderness?
Is there a small sense of terror, 
as we watch the depletion of resources...
and of the depletion of people and skills,
of time and talents?
And like the Israelites, do we long for a return to the good old days? 

Journeying in the wilderness can be terrifying –
all the securities and apparent guarantees of survival are gone.
But the wilderness could also provide the church 
with an opportunity to re-define itself according to what matters most,
and in doing so, find fresh ways of touching the hearts of all we encounter;
for in the wilderness, free from unnecessary distractions,
we are reminded of whose we are:
God’s particular people,
In this particular time and place at Seaside Town,
in our homes,
or wherever, and whoever, we are with.

What might our lives look like if we lived 
the Ten Commandments as invitations to freedom,
to life, rather than a set of rules to be followed?

What would life be like if we lived in the awareness 
that life comes from God, 
that we don’t need to worship the false god of consumerism,
or bow down to the idol of celebrity? 

What if we celebrated that we can still freely and publicly 
speak God’s name in praise and prayer?
What if we recognised that life was about more than work 
and took up God’s invitation to Sabbath?

What if we took up God’s invitation to respect people,
honour life, and honour relationships?
And what if we were on the receiving end of that respect and honour?
What would that feel like?
...What would life be like?

Writer Joe Roos notes that:
‘the Ten Commandments don't begin with:
'Here are ten commandments, learn them by rote,' or
 'Here are ten commandments, obey them.'
Instead, they begin with a sweeping announcement of freedom:
'I am the Lord your God, 
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 
out of the house of slavery'.

We will probably always think of the declarations that follow 
as the Ten Commandments.
But we could,
and probably should,
think of them as invitations to God's ...liberation.’...
the ‘positive’ ten.

As we learn what it is to walk in the freedom 
that God gives to each one of us, 
I’m reminded of the words of 5th century theologian, Augustine, 
who famously said:
‘love God, and do what you like’...
meaning that, although there will be the occasional glitch, 
for we’re none of us perfect yet...
if we love God,
what we like
will tend to be that which pleases God...
for we are his, 
and he is ours,
and we live within the immense bounds of his amazing grace.

Let us pray:
Faithful God,
We ask your help as we grow in our relationship with you.
Life-giver, love-bringer, liberator,
As we learn together to love and to serve you,
May our hearts so incline towards you,
that all our deeds become an expression of lives lived in love – 
of you, and of our neighbour.

We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The Positive 10:
Put God first. 
Give worth to the one who gives worth to you.
Use God’s name with respect and love.
Spend time thinking about God.
Honour and love your whole family.
Live towards other people with love and generosity.
Find the richness in faithfulness towards others.
Celebrate what you have rather than dwell on what you don’t.
Speak well of others and truthfully to yourself.
Why get down about what others have when you can share what you have with others?

1 comment:

altar ego said...

Brilliant! Love the Clint Eastwood reference...